NWSL Challenge Cup Blown Wide Open After Thorns Stun Top-Seeded Courage

Britt Eckerstrom and Morgan Weaver were the heroes for shorthanded Portland, which sent top seed and reigning champion North Carolina home early.
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The old adage that the longer you let a team hang around, the more dangerous they become has proved true time and again. The latest instance: the first quarterfinal of the NWSL Challenge Cup.

The No. 8 seed Portland Thorns knocked off overwhelming favorite and top seed North Carolina Courage, 1–0, on Friday, opening the knockout stage with a stunner on multiple levels and blowing the competition wide open.

The Thorns entered the tournament without Tobin Heath and Adrianna Franch, lost fellow U.S. national team veteran Becky Sauerbrunn, rising talent Sophia Smith and stellar stand-in goalkeeper Bella Bixby along the way and had Lindsey Horan go down to injury 50 minutes in on Friday.

Backup-to-the-backup goalkeeper Britt Eckerstrom was forced into action—with Portland goalkeeper coach and retired German legend Nadine Angerer forced onto the bench as her backup—and was sensational, stopping eight shots and withstanding an onslaught from the Courage's array of attacking talents in the upset. 

Rookie Morgan Weaver tallied her first career goal in the 68th minute to account for the scoring, and a place in the semifinals awaits in a tournament that any remaining team will feel confident of winning.

The Thorns were not your average eight-seed, though they earned the distinction by failing to win a single game in the preliminary stage. They've been, along with North Carolina, the cream of the NWSL crop over the last few years, but they've been far from full strength in Utah. They did push the Courage to the brink in the tournament's first game, with Lynn Williams's stoppage-time goal the difference in a 2—1 triumph, but considering the circumstances, this was expected to be the first of NCC's three steps in the procession to another NWSL trophy. So much for that.

The Courage had the overwhelming advantage in the run of play. They peppered the Thorns defense to the tune of 12 shots in the first half, with Williams and Debinha at the center of the action. In the opening minute, Williams nearly found Kristen Hamilton for a tap-in at the far post after easily beating Katherine Reynolds. A few minutes later, after burning Reynolds again, she overhit a clear look at goal.

The pressure continued over the opening quarter of an hour. A clear Williams look from the edge of the box was blocked, and, two minutes later, Sam Mewis pulled a shot wide from about the same spot.

Debinha's involvement accelerated in the 28th minute, springing Williams for a shot that Eckerstrom did well to save. Arguably her toughest save of the day came a couple of minutes later, when Debinha took a pass from Jaelene Daniels and curled a shot to the far post, only for a diving Eckerstrom to push it aside. Four minutes later, Debinha slalomed through the Thorns defense, delivering everything but the finish. The pattern developing was clear.

But the Thorns were resolute, and remained so despite losing Reynolds after a nasty head-to-head collision with Williams and even more so when Horan was forced off five minutes after halftime with an apparent leg injury.

Debinha was turned away in the 65th minute by one diving Eckerstrom stop and by another in the 79th, off a free kick that threatened to tie the game.

Instead it was the combination of Rocky Rodriguez and Weaver that settled it and sent the two-time reigning league champions and three-time reigning Shield holders packing. Rodriguez patiently controlled in the North Carolina box, while Weaver cleverly got position on her mark so she could redirect home the winner from six yards out. It was the first goal the Courage had conceded since the one to the Thorns in the opener–a span of 348 minutes.

For North Carolina, a team that expects and is built for success, it's a devastating result. It was by far the superior team in an otherwise lackluster preliminary stage, steamrolling the competition but not converting on the multitude of chances it created. That proved to be the downfall Friday, when a multiple-goal lead before halftime easily could have unfolded.

Portland will advance with emotional momentum, exhausted legs and serious questions regarding Horan and her availability going forward, but advancement in a knockout setting is all that's ultimately required.

With the top seed down, it's anyone's trophy to win—unless spirited spectator Orlando has chosen to stan you.